Islamic Countries Engage with China Against the Background of Repression in Xinjiang

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 5

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses for a publicity photograph during a visit to the Great Wall of China (February 21, 2019).

The Silence of the Muslim World Regarding Repression in China

Throughout 2018, a steadily growing body of evidence revealed the existence of a vast network of detainment facilities in China’s western Xinjiang Province, in which hundreds of thousands of Uighurs—a Turkic-speaking and majority Muslim ethnic group—are or have been confined for extended periods of time (China Brief, May 15 2018; China Brief, November 5 2018). Many of these facilities function as “transformation through education” centers, in which detainees are made subject to abusive treatment and severe psychological pressure to proclaim loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (China Brief, February 1; Freedom House, February 13). Even outside such facilities, the Chinese authorities have created a pervasive surveillance regime in Xinjiang that is one of the most repressive in the world (Human Rights Watch, September 9 2018; Congressional Executive Commission on China, July 26 2018).

The repression against the Uighurs has been accompanied by a broader campaign in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to suppress Islamic culture and religious practice. In 2018, the PRC issued bans on giving newborn children Islamic-themed names (Arab News, April 26 2017). Uighurs have reportedly been forced to drink alcoholic beverages and eat pork during Lunar New Year celebrations, or else risk arrest (Yeni Safak, February 8). In 2018, PRC citizens traveling to Mecca for the hajj pilgrimage were made to wear GPS-based personal tracking devices (Muslim Council of Hong Kong, August 4 2018). Throughout 2018, the government has even conducted a broad campaign of demolishing mosques, on the flimsy pretext of protecting the public from the dangers of dilapidated buildings (Gulf News, August 11 2018; Radio Free Asia, September 7 2018).

This state-directed repression and harassment directed against Muslims in China has drawn broad international condemnation throughout the Western world. However, what has been the reaction from the Islamic world itself? Although reactions among major states have varied (as discussed below), the reaction throughout the Islamic world has largely been one of deafening silence—and when voices are raised, they have been faint. The Independent Human Rights Commission of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) provides a representative example: following meetings in December to 2018 to discuss the plight of the Uighurs, the Commission issued a tepid statement in which it “expressed concern on these disturbing reports on the treatment of Uighur Muslims and expressed hope that China, which has excellent bilateral relations with most OIC countries as well as the OIC, would address the legitimate concerns of Muslims around the world” (Twitter, December 11 2018).

Egypt and Saudi Arabia Set the Tone for Sunni States

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two pillar states for the Sunni Arab world, have long prioritized their relations with the PRC over any concern for Muslim minorities in China. The two countries have even acted to shield the PRC from criticism: following violent riots in Xinjiang in 2009, Egypt and Saudi Arabia both assisted the PRC by helping to block a draft resolution critical of China that was under debate in the OIC. [1] In 2017, Egypt went further by rounding up dozens of Uighur students residing in Egypt, and sending them back to China—without explanation, and without the men being able to meet with lawyers or their families (Radio Free Asia, July 7 2017).

In February 2019, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) made a high-profile visit to the PRC, in which he committed to strengthening his country’s relationship with China, and offered no public comment about the Uighurs or other oppressed Muslims (Sputnik News Arabic, February 20). In the course of his trip, MBS reportedly signed 35 economic cooperation deals worth a total of $28 billion U.S. dollars (Khaleej Times, February 22; Annahar, February 22). PRC state press hailed the visit as proof that Saudi Arabia “attached great importance to the comprehensive strategic partnership with China… [and] firmly supported China’s efforts to safeguard its sovereignty, security and stability, and opposed external forces interfering in China’s domestic affairs.” The prince’s Chinese hosts further asserted that the two countries would “push forward anti-terrorism, law enforcement and security cooperation, while enhancing experience exchanges on de-radicalization” (Xinhua, February 22).

Non-Arab Sunni states have generally followed the same course. When the plight of the Uighurs was raised in Indonesia’s Parliament in December 2018, Vice President Jusuf Kalla commented that his government wished “to prevent any human rights violations,” but that “we don’t want to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country” (ABC, December 22 2018). In Pakistan—arguably the most pro-PRC of any major Muslim state, and a major recipient of Chinese investments—Prime Minister Imran Khan has professed ignorance of the situation in Xinjiang  (Express Tribune, January 8), and the Foreign Ministry has claimed that the entire situation has been distorted by a “faction of foreign media [who] are trying to sensationalize the matter by spreading false information” (Express Tribune, December 20 2018),

The sensitivity of many states in the Islamic world regarding their own human rights records has made these governments unwilling to criticize China for its anti-Muslim repression: these countries are willing to sacrifice the Uighurs for their own interests, and they comply with China’s preference for “non-interference in domestic affairs” (Middle East Institute, January 22). Furthermore, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest customer, and the Saudi economy (as well as that of other countries in the region) relies on exporting natural resource products. Economic dependence on China is a common factor in the Middle East, and in order to maintain the market access, cheap loans, and consumer goods that benefit their own economies, these nations must keep their relations with China positive.

Additionally, there is speculation amongst America’s traditional Sunni allies that the United States might sooner or later withdraw from the region; this contributes to a belief in some quarters that time is on China’s side. PRC state media has sought to play up this theme: commenting on the visit to China by MBS, Global Times stated that “Riyadh used to rely on the West… However, having realized that Western countries are not always dependable, the Saudi Prince is banking on [a] ‘Look East’ policy” for his country (Global Times, February 24).

A Divided Iran Continues to Side with China

Although Iran—the leading Shia state of the Middle East—is at loggerheads with its arch-rival Saudi Arabia on a broad range of issues, the two share a common approach in prizing diplomatic and economic relations with the PRC over concern for China’s Muslims. Iran chafes under significant economic sanctions, and depends to a large degree on trade with China; furthermore, the Islamic Republic has long sought to cultivate China and Russia as counterweights to American influence in the region. This has led Iran to remain largely silent regarding China’s anti-Muslim repression (The Diplomat, September 18 2018). Iran’s government, like its Sunni counterparts, also shares sensitivities regarding its own human rights record, and concerns that human rights could be invoked by outside powers as a justification for intervention in its domestic affairs. [2]

In the past, statements of concern for China’s Muslims have been made by some dissident figures in the clerical hierarchy. In the course of Iran’s contested 2009 elections, reformist clerics made an issue of the PRC’s treatment of the Uighurs, and of Iran’s own silence in response: Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamedani and Ayatollah Yousef Sanei issued separate statements that criticized China’s violent suppression of unrest in Xinjiang, as well as China’s efforts to dominate the markets of Muslim countries (Tehran Times, July 14 2009; New York Times, July 14 2009). Similar criticisms were later repeated by members of the Iranian Parliament and the Tehran City Council (The Diplomat, September 18 2018). However, these criticisms have not changed the policy orientation of the regime, which continues to prioritize relations with the PRC above other concerns.

Turkey as an Isolated Voice of Criticism  

Turkey, which shares ethno-linguistic ties with the Uighurs, has been the one major Muslim state to speak out against the repression of Chinese Muslims. Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has appealed to a sense of common heritage with Uighurs and has positioned himself as their protector. In response to the riots in Urumqi in 2009, Erdoğan said: “These events in China are genocide and we request the Chinese government to not play a spectator’s role… It is clear barbarity” (Hurriyet, April 9 2012).

However, even Turkey’s policy has been volatile, and subject to shifts over time. By the end of 2017, the Turkish leadership shifted in a more pro-PRC direction. Following a meeting between China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Wang Yi, and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Turkish minister stated that “Turkey’s security is related to China’s security.” This was accompanied by restrictions on media coverage of the Uighur issue, which was intended to silence criticism of PRC policy (Reuters, August 3 2017; Besa Center, September 2017).

In 2019, Turkey has changed its stance again. On February 9th, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs published an announcement condemning the “arbitrary arrests, torture and political brainwashing in the internment camps throughout Xinjiang.” The Turkish announcement called the camps “a shame for all humanity” and called on the Secretary General of the United Nations to take action. This change was precipitated by the reported death in a Chinese internment camp of the renowned Uighur poet and musician Abdurehim Heyit, who had been imprisoned due to the ideas expressed in his poems (Turkish Foreign Ministry, February 9). [3]

The roller coaster nature of Turkey’s stance towards China and the Uighurs has three apparent reasons. The first is Turkey’s need to maintain expanding ties with China. Turkey’s society has radicalized during Erdoğan’s rule, which has contributed to rising Turkish nationalism that rejects Europe and the West; and when denied membership in the European Union, Ankara began seeking allies elsewhere. Additionally, the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) introduced an economic incentive that reinforced Turkey’s alignment with China: the price Turkey paid for BRI investment was silence on the Uighur issue.

Demonstrators in Instanbul protest against the treatment of Uighurs in China (November 2018).

The second major reason is the Turkey-Qatar bloc’s struggle with Egypt and Saudi Arabia for the leadership of the Sunni world (Al-Jazeera, January 13). Taking a stance on the Uighurs allows Ankara to assume the role of defender of Muslim rights in the world—a stance made all the more striking by the pervasive silence from Riyadh (Al-Jazeera, February 10). The third reason is domestic pressure: as a Turkish columnist has noted, “Dozens of similar protests and events have taken place in the recent months in various corners of Anatolia, which increased the pressure on Erdoğan’s party.” This included a major protest on January 24th, in which Erodgan’s political rivals called on the Turkish government to act on and investigate the violation of Uighur rights in China (Hurriyet, February 11).

Even amidst this criticism, Erdoğan’s government has sought to avoid excessively harming its ties with China: notably, it was the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and not the president himself, that issued recent condemnations of China. Despite this, there has been a chill in Turkish-Chinese relations. On February 28th, the PRC announced the closure of its consulate in the city of Izmir (Hurriyet, March 1); the reasons for this were unspecified, but it is likely a symbolic move to express Beijing’s displeasure over Ankara’s recent criticisms.


In addressing other international Muslim issues—such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, or the plight of the ethnic minority Rohingya in Myanmar—Islamic governments have expressed concern regarding the human rights of their Muslim brethren. This being so, why do they remain silent about abuses against the Uighurs and other Muslims in China? The short answer to this question is the economic and diplomatic influence now wielded by China around the globe. Looking ahead, the attitude held by Arab states towards the Xinjiang issue is not likely to change: for these governments, relations with China are far more important than supporting the Uighurs. As China’s economic and geopolitical power in the international arena continue to increase, the interest of Muslim countries in dealing with the Uighur issue will likely decrease.

Taking this into account, Western countries must use all the means at their disposal to stop immediately the violations of the basic rights of Muslims throughout China, and press the PRC to immediately close the network of “transformation through education” camps spread throughout Xinjiang. American representatives should raise these issues and other violations of human rights, in both open and private discussions with Chinese leaders. Showcasing strong leadership on the matter will present the world with value-based power that will not only serve to make the world a better place, but will also strengthen the position of Western countries in terms of moral influence. Courageous figures from within the Muslim world, too, must speak up—or else the abuses in Xinjiang and elsewhere will continue with impunity.

Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University, focusing his research on the response of Middle Eastern countries to the growth of China. He is also a Fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), the Kohelet Policy Forum, and the China-Med project, as well as a freelance journalist.


[1] “Xinjiang: PRC Scrambles to Avoid Anti-Islam Image Abroad and Kill OIC Declaration,” U.S. Diplomatic Cable dated July 17, 2009.

[2] Large-scale protests erupted in Iran in June 2009, and continued through the period of the violent riots in Xinjiang in July 2009. On July 28, 2009, Iran’s delegation to the United Nations issued a statement that domestic repression “by no means whatsoever, may imply permit to use force against another State under any pretext such as humanitarian intervention,” and that primacy must be given to “respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of States as well as the principle of non-use of force in international relations and non-interference.” See: Statement of the Islamic Republic of Iran Permanent Mission to the United Nations (July 28, 2009).

[3] Since the reported death of Abdurehim Heyit, Chinese authorities released a video dated February 10th that showed the poet to be alive, and presenting a statement—under seeming duress—that he had not been subjected to any abuse. Heyit has been sentenced to eight years in prison for “violating national laws” (Guardian Video News, February 10).